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In which a reluctant comic-book reader discusses Jeff Lemire‘s Sweet Tooth.

As I’ve explained before, I don’t get comic books. Jeff Lemire‘s Sweet Tooth—a smart comic representative of the medium’s masochistic desire to transcend itself—crystallizes my confusion. Chronicling the adventures of a half-human, half-deer hybrid teenager in a post-Apocalyptic future, Issue #1 is quite dark—2/5ths of the characters, including the protagonist’s father, perish by the short episode’s end, one by a (pardon the inadvertent pun) graphically-rendered shot to the head. In this way, Sweet Tooth signals that it is not a mere comic, but grasps for graphic novelhood.

But what is the graphic novel? Lemire, inspired by Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road and Walt Disney‘s Bambi, evokes, but can’t replicate, the sheer terror McCarthy inspires in a format—inky newsprint—that hints at the grandeur of Disney’s weird, wonderful film, but can’t match it. Sweet Tooth is an aesthete’s digest—a miniature version of other artworks that offers a sense of what it would be like to experience those other artworks, but isn’t an artwork in and of itself.

This is the problem with graphic novels: They want to be novels, but aren’t, and want to be graphic, but are visually outmatched by movies, television, video games, photography, and the internet. Yet, the comic book industry’s attempts to escape the corner drugstore ghetto have succeeded. But, in getting serious, hasn’t that industry undone the charming disposability of Archie and Superman? If this medium isn’t disposable, what good is it? What is the graphic novel, and what does it want from us?

Lemire speaks for himself here.